Hooking Up In An Urban Interface

I am not a man. I am not single. I am not gay. I am not any of those things, let alone all three. But this didn't stop me from downloading the Grindr app for the iPhone. Have you heard of it?

It's a guy thing. And it touts itself as "the largest all male location-based mobile social networking tool for the iPhone or the iPod Touch." Using the device's GPS capabilities, Grindr allows users to scope out other Grindr members who are nearby and, presumably, looking for love.

One of an increasing number of GPS-enabled social mobile apps, Grindr is an intriguing example of urban informatics, an emerging field concerned with the intersection of sociology, urban planning and architecture, and design and technology. It's fascinating, creepy and cool all at once, and is changing the way we interact in urban spaces.

As a designer of mobile interfaces, this fascinates me. The city is undoubtedly the oldest form of a user interface, one that generates incredible amounts of data. But we are just now able to capture, harness, interpret and manipulate this data in real-time via smart phones and other emerging technologies.

Anthony Townsend, director of the Institute of the Future, offers this metaphor:

To use a crude analogy, if aerial photography showed us the muscular and skeletal structure of the city, the revolution in urban informatics is likely to reveal its circulatory and nervous systems. I like to call this vision the "real-time city," becausefor the first time we'll see cities as a whole the way biologists see a cell –- instantaneously and in excruciating detail, but also alive. This is in contrast to the wayastronomers see a heavenly body –- as it was, some time ago, light years in the past.

Dan Hill, designer, urbanist and author of the leading architecture blog, City of Sound, gives this compelling overview of how the intersection of interaction design and the urban space change the ways we live and work. One of the things he envisions is data presentation moving out of the mobile device and woven into the urban fabric.

For the dating public, this could prove very useful. For example, instead of having to check the Grindr app on your iPhone for potential love interests once you're physically in a bar, you could just be driving down the main drag, seeing digital numbers floating above each nightclub, indicating the number of available hotties in each venue. Based on this information, you would automatically know which bars offered the best chances of hooking up and could get straight to business. How cool is that?

Luckily, I'm happily married and have no use for the heterosexual dating apps that are sure to follow Grindr's lead. My husband and I met the old-fashioned way, way back in 2001 on kiss.com.

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